News night has not yet fallen on the city. New Yorkers will continue to get news from National Public Radio through the two WNYC stations. Once again, their recent fund-raiser was a success, according to the management. Well, bless ’em.
In another time and under different circumstances, a person might cause a hullabaloo of complaint about some of the things NPR does. For instance, that guy who takes up air time talking about his dog. And there is Maria. The endlessly aired Maria story gets me cranked up. That’s the one with village noises in the background, with a voice-over describing Maria grinding six peas into flour to feed her 14 children. Next we hear Maria speaking, in Spanish or Hindi or Tagalog or whatever, telling us that the whoevers swept out of the mountains or jungle or you name it, raped the women, murdered the boys and made off with the peas. The story is sad but repeated so often it has become meaningless to these callused ears.
But Maria or no Maria, NPR’s news is now not only the best news to be heard on the nation’s thousands of radio stations but the only news. I don’t count the elliptical sparkings of all-news radio as news. Those stations are good for nothing but weather, the Dow Jones and sports scores.
And as for over-the-air network television, those folks got out of the news business long since. Now CNN, which for years did the best news job in television, is slipping sideways out of news and into fluff-o-matics. This appears to be the result of CNN’s merger with Time Warner. The various matings of print and broadcast and Internet are given names like “convergence,” which sounds advanced, ahead of the curve, on the cutting edge, etc. But what it turns out to mean is that one story by one reporter is repackaged, reformatted and rearranged to give the impression of “choice and variety,” and what the viewer, reader or listener actually gets is the same crapola over and over again in different guises.
Residents of New York can shrug their shoulders and go buy a newspaper, for, whatever the metro area papers’ deficiencies maybe, they still carry news. Conceded that some of them carry more news than others, New Yorkers do have easy access to news of current affairs, but residents of most other places must content themselves with newsless newspapers to go along with the newsless news broadcasting. Odd, isn’t it, that here we are plopped down in the middle of the much-touted information age, and yet news of current events and topics of the day was less expensively and more conveniently available to our grandparents.
Even if we stipulate that the men and women who run the various popular media are avaricious dolts, greedy imbeciles and sociopathic, cretinous dribblers of spit and pablum, the blame for the emergent newsless society cannot be dumped wholly on their worthless heads. The truth is that ABC’s nightly news, once a respectable news headline service, would go largely unwatched if it were to amend its ways and take up journalism again.
It may be true in the movies that if you build it, they will come, but in the news biz, if you give them journalism, they will stay away by the millions. My God, even the dumbed-down, patty-cake, patty-cake journalism of miraculous cures, beautiful rape victims, grieving mothers, sexually abused children, emetic sentiment, sinning movie stars and wife-battering professional athletes is losing viewers and readers. The Newspaper Association of America, faced with declining readership everywhere, has commercials on the major sports events in which one of those dopey dese-dose-and-dem jockheads pleads with the sporting public to go buy a newspaper, any newspaper, and read it to a child. Talk about pissing into the wind!
Unlike broadcasting, the papers have an additional obstacle in the changing nature of literacy in America. In addition to the functional illiterates, whose existence has been the subject of such concern for the last generation or so, we have many millions more who might be described as functional literates.
A functional literate is a person who is able to read the manual of instructions for home appliances or machines at work. Functional literates can read well enough to fill out forms, do office work and written procedures of many kinds. What functional literates cannot do is absorb more than minimal amounts of information through the written word. They cannot get enjoyment out of reading. Reading is work, not leisure. The functional literates cannot keep their eyes on a printed page more than two or three consecutive minutes, because reading for these people, who may, by now, make up the bulk of our population, is a laboriously foreign activity done under compulsion and necessity. The functional literate is able to read just enough to get by and not one word more.
Functional literates aren’t lower class, don’t live in the inner city and are not unemployed. They are our mid-masses, people who live in owner-occupied homes innocent of all printed matter save the telephone directory. Where once their middle-class ancestors had self-improvement books on the bookshelves, like the Harvard Classics series, their great-grandchildren have no bookshelves and, if they own a book at all, it will be a volume of devotional thoughts by a movie star, or a book about diet, pet grooming, or the 10 basic steps to orgasm and spiritual fulfillment.
If they were fully literate, however, they still wouldn’t read a newspaper any more than they would turn on a TV news show, unless it were to watch a white Ford Bronco peruse the freeways of Los Angeles. They find current events boring and, children of the pop, commercial culture of entertainment and effortless diversion that they are, they are not about to loll on their couches doing the minimum brain work required to watch a news show. No indeed, not as long as they have a channel changer in their hands.
Millions find even the cunningly made, if historically debatable, Oliver Stone movies too tedious to bear watching. For all intents and purposes, America is becoming a newsless society. It used to be a settled maxim in journalism that foreign news was anathema to viewers and readers alike, but now the aversion to the work of passively inhaling any sort of intelligence about what is happening has spread to all news short of scandals.
The responsibility for the running of the society has, therefore, been turned over to a few million men and women who are paid to run things. These are, of course, a corporal’s guard of people actively engaged in politics, a slice of, but by no means all of, the professorate, the think-tankers, the top people at our various major institutions, public or private, commercial or nonprofit. They buy the 10 or 15 content-heavy daily newspapers still up and running. Out of a population of a quarter of a billion docile pleasure-feeders and entertainment-grazers, there probably aren’t more than 10 million in the American governing class, which is distinguished not so much by money as by caring enough about the conduct of the society to pay attention.
Our country has been spared the agonies of a major crisis for at least a generation. Though we have had our ups and downs (the Persian Gulf War, a minor recession), it has been a blue-sky world for those born after 1957. But there is bad weather coming. I don’t know when or how or in what form, but the Bible tells us so. I gave you seven good years, now you get seven bad ones. So when the sun disappears and there is darkness at noon, those who know nothing, who are unprepared in their disarmed ignorance, will be the devotees and dupes of false and malevolent voices, the madmen and devils who always come with the troubles.